How We Got Shafted at the Revolution

New York has never quite gotten the recognition it deserves in the narrative of America’s founding. Although it was settled around the same time as Massachusetts and Virginia, our schoolbook lore goes something like this: A group of Pilgrims seeking religious freedom landed on Plymouth Rock, the Indians helped them plant corn, and they celebrated Thanksgiving; the Puritans who followed had a lot of witch trials and banished heretics to go found Rhode Island, and meanwhile Pocahontas and John Smith were down in Virginia engaging in their own version of an errand into the wilderness. At best, New York makes a cameo when a scrappy Dutch businessman named Peter Minuit buys Manhattan from the Indians for about $24.

One reason New York loses out in America’s historical saga is that most of it has been written by professors at Harvard and Yale who thought that every sermon by a Bradford or a Winthrop or a Mather revealed profound insights into not only the New England mind but also the enduring soul of America.

Another historical public-relations problem is that New York, which remained rather Tory during the Revolution, abstained from supporting the Declaration of Independence and ratified the Constitution only after ten other states had already made it the law of the land. As a result, New York can claim no towering patriotic heroes comparable to the Adamses of Massachusetts or to Washington, Jefferson, and Madison of Virginia. Indeed, those two states gave us our first six presidents, whereas New York did not produce one until Martin Van Buren, number eight.

Into this breach now comes Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, which does for New York’s Revolutionary hero what David McCullough did recently for John Adams. A biographer noted for his tomes on the Morgans, the Warburgs, and John D. Rockefeller, Chernow has a feel for both finance and New Yorkers. (The New-York Historical Society will launch a major exhibition in August called “Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made America.”) In addition, Russell Shorto has published a flavorful new history of Colonial-era Manhattan, The Island at the Center of the World. Together, they help remind us that this rollicking commercial center had more influence than the pulpits of Massachusetts or the plantations of Virginia in nurturing the fundamental traits—a respect for cultural diversity and free markets—that were to define what America would become.

The tale of New York’s influence begins with Adriaen van der Donck, who might have fared better in schoolbooks had he been blessed with a more felicitous name. Shorto resurrects him from obscurity and portrays him as the early merchant pioneer who introduced the key notions of pluralism and personal liberty to what was then known as New Amsterdam. He stood up to the cantankerous and peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant, whose intolerance included trying to prevent Jews from settling here. The struggle between these two men, Shorto shows, made it possible for New York City to “develop into a unique place that would foster an intense stew of cultures and a wildly fertile intellectual, artistic and business environment.”

Van der Donck did not personally prevail, but his ideas did. The Dutch and early English merchants created a gateway town that became a melting pot of Germans, Jews, Scandinavians, and Africans. In contrast to the rigid monoculture in Massachusetts and the slave-owning plantations of Virginia, the business settlement that New York became reveled in free trade and free minds. “A new kind of spirit hovered over the island,” Shorto writes, “something utterly alien to New England and Virginia.”

When the English eventually took control from the Dutch in 1664, all continued to cohabit quite nicely together. Indeed, in the Articles of Capitulation, the English guaranteed that “the Dutch here shall enjoy the liberty of their Consciences.” The document even included an enumeration of rights and the rudiments of democratic representation that foreshadowed the emergence of a new type of nation. This allowed minorities and ethnic communities to flourish here. “Van der Donck’s dream became real in a way he never imagined,” Shorto writes. “The structure he helped win for the place grounded it in Dutch tolerance and diversity, just as he hoped it would, which in turn touched off the island’s rapid growth and increased the influx of settlers.”

Chernow picks up this theme a century later by portraying a product of this Manhattan commercial stew, the bastard West Indian immigrant Alexander Hamilton, as a seminal force in creating a national soul that was influenced as much by bankers and merchants as by Puritans and agrarians. Although Hamilton was reviled in his time by Jeffersonian democrats as an evil genius in thrall to wealthy aristocracies, his role as the nation’s first Treasury secretary made him the father of America’s capitalist system and strong central government. “No other founder,” Chernow writes, “articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.”

Hamilton was an ambitious urban social climber, a combative intellectual, and a brilliant advocate of enterprise, competition, and well-oiled financial markets. You know the type. He was, Chernow writes, an “exuberant genius” with a “touchy ego” that made him tortured and ultimately self-destructive. While these New York traits make him less of a schoolbook hero than Washington or Adams, they make him no less of an American archetype. They also caused him to be juxtaposed in history, sometimes in an oversimplified way, with the agrarian democrat Jefferson and his vision of America as a place of Arcadian innocence.

Hamilton’s comfort with a boisterous multiculturalism perhaps stemmed from his own roots as an immigrant from the Caribbean. He was born on the British island of Nevis in about 1755, raised on the Danish island of St. Croix, and attended a school run by a Sephardic Jewish woman who taught him Hebrew. After his father deserted his family and his mother died, Hamilton emigrated to New York to continue his studies, and he eventually (after being rejected by Princeton) enrolled at King’s College, now Columbia.

Hamilton began to make his name in the raucous politics of Manhattan by fervently supporting the rebel cause. New York was far slower in joining the Revolution than were the radicals up in Massachusetts or down in Virginia. In July 1776, it was the only state whose delegation to the Continental Congress abstained from voting for the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton was by then a 21-year-old captain under General George Washington, whose army happened to be in Manhattan at the time. The general gathered his troops at a commons near King’s College to hear the document read aloud.

Unfortunately for New York’s role in America’s patriotic saga, that was the last great Revolution scene in the city. The British responded by sending two warships up the Hudson, blasting Manhattan rooftops. Captain Hamilton commanded an artillery bombardment from the Battery; the British ships were unscathed, but an exploding cannon killed about six of Hamilton’s own men. Washington urged residents to evacuate and sent his motley troops to Brooklyn Heights, where he made a disastrous stand, losing 1,200 men.

The British pursued the Americans across the East River and routed them again at Kips Bay, while a cursing Washington on horseback tried to control the panicked retreat. Hamilton bravely fought a rearguard action, then walked in the rain through densely forested upper Manhattan to Harlem Heights, where he helped build a garrison for Washington. British troops mercilessly ransacked New York and burned the books at King’s College.

For most of the rest of the war, New York City was under British control and became a haven for Loyalists. The battles there had one important side effect. They forged an intense relationship between Washington and Hamilton that was key to America’s early history. When Washington became president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he appointed Hamilton to the committee setting the rules for the gathering. Nevertheless, New York found itself again marginalized. Hamilton did not get along with the other two members of the state’s delegation, John Lansing Jr. and Robert Yates, who opposed his desire to create a stronger central government. Nor was he popular with other delegates. “His manners are tinctured with stiffness,” one of them observed, “and sometimes with a degree of vanity that is highly disagreeable.”

Hamilton’s major contribution at the convention was an epic six-hour speech that was, in Chernow’s words, “brilliant, courageous, and, in retrospect, completely daft.” Exposing his pessimistic opinion of the masses, he denounced the tendency toward too much democracy and argued for an elected “monarch” and senators who would serve for life. Lansing and Yates left Philadelphia in disgust. The speech, which would haunt him for the rest of his career, ensured that neither Hamilton nor the New York delegation would become part of the pantheon of historical heroes the convention produced.

Hamilton’s great influence came later, during the battle to gain the approval of the nine states necessary for ratification. New York was split. Governor George Clinton led the anti-ratification forces using his great political dexterity. Hamilton led the Federalist forces using his pen, writing an anonymous newspaper piece that called Clinton “thick-skulled and double-hearted.” The governor’s side responded with essays calling Hamilton “Tom Shit” and alluding to his illegitimacy and alleged mixed-race ancestry.

Yet the period also produced, thanks to Hamilton, the most exalted series of essays ever written about the American constitutional system. Teaming up with the Virginian James Madison and fellow New Yorker John Jay, he coordinated a brilliant torrent of 85 pieces that became known as The Federalist Papers, which appeared in four Manhattan newspapers and were originally addressed “To the People of the State of New York.” Madison gave the best philosophical explanations of the new system. Hamilton’s arguments were more practical and more reflective of New York’s growing influence in shaping the United States into a great commercial power. The new government was necessary, he argued, to assure a vibrant financial system, prosperous merchants and manufacturers, and a strong navy to protect its trade.

Given the boisterous nature of both New York and Hamilton, it’s not surprising that he included a few less-exalted passages, including an attack in Federalist No. 77 on Clinton for running “a despicable and dangerous system of personal influence.” Even after word arrived that New Hampshire and Virginia had become the ninth and tenth states to ratify the Constitution, thus assuring that it would go into effect, the fight in New York continued. Hamilton threatened that New York City might secede from the state. Finally, by a slim margin, New York voted to join the new union.

In addition to The Federalist Papers, Hamilton made one other great contribution. As Washington’s choice to be the first Treasury secretary, he created the financial structures that tied the nation together and made it, and New York, a commercial power. The capital was then in lower Manhattan, and on his second day in office, Hamilton arranged a large loan from the Bank of New York. He then set to work on a plan for the government’s fiscal machinery, which resulted in his famous 40,000-word Report on Public Credit.

The new federal government, he proposed, must honor the debts from the Revolution and assume the debts incurred by the thirteen colonies. That, of course, would strengthen the role of the central government in managing the nation’s finances. This pitted him against Jefferson, newly arrived in New York as Washington’s secretary of State. The Virginian, supported by his ally in Congress James Madison, objected that the plan would reward financial speculators who had bought bonds cheap from poor farmers, increase the power of the government, and impinge on state sovereignty.

Hamilton wanted New York to become the nation’s capital, which likewise aroused Jefferson’s opposition. The city was so associated with Hamilton and his commercial vision that his enemies called it Hamiltonopolis. They saw it, writes Chernow, as “an Anglophile bastion dominated by bankers and merchants who would contaminate the republican experiment.” Washington and Jefferson were pushing instead for a rural site alongside the plantations of the Potomac.

Realizing that Madison had the votes to block his cherished debt plan, Hamilton was willing to trade away the capital as a compromise. The stage was thus set for the most historic dinner party ever held in Manhattan. Present at Jefferson’s rented house on Maiden Lane were Hamilton and Madison. The Virginians pointed out that the plan unduly penalized their state, which had paid off most of its debts. They would need something in return: a national capital on the banks of the Potomac.

In some ways, Hamilton struck the better bargain. The debt plan determined forever that the states would be weaker than the central government. Creating this foundation for federal power and taxation in America was more important to Hamilton than winning the capital for New York. Indeed, the creation of vibrant financial markets helped make New York what it is today, and helped New York make America what it is today. In the realm of economics, if not politics, Hamilton’s New York vision of America would end up prevailing. “He was the messenger of America’s economic future,” Chernow notes, “setting forth a vision of an urban manufacturing society.”

But as Chernow further notes, “the sad irony was that Hamilton, the quintessential New Yorker, bargained away the city’s chance to become another London or Paris, the political as well as financial and cultural capital of the country.”

Despite his political opposition to Jefferson, Hamilton was responsible for his winning the 1800 presidential election, and for denying that job to a fellow New Yorker. It was clear that the electoral votes of New York would be crucial that year, so in the spring both parties bitterly fought the local elections that would control the State Legislature, which then picked electoral delegates. The contest pitted Hamilton’s forces against those of New York’s Jeffersonian Republican leader, Aaron Burr. Burr emerged triumphant, and in return Jefferson was reluctantly forced to select him as his running mate that fall.

“New York was so associated with Hamilton and his commercial vision that his enemies called it Hamiltonopolis.”

Hamilton was initially appalled at the prospect of Jefferson, “an atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics,” becoming president. But he fell into a vindictive feud with his own party’s candidate for reelection, John Adams. “The man is more mad than I ever thought him,” Hamilton wrote, “and I shall soon be led to say as wicked as he is mad.”

The Jefferson-Burr ticket won the most electoral votes, but because of a quirk in the system, later fixed by a constitutional amendment, there was no distinction made in the electoral college between votes for president and vice-president. So Jefferson and Burr ended up tied, throwing the selection between the two Republicans into the lame-duck House of Representatives still dominated by Federalists.

Hamilton’s opposition to Jefferson was philosophical, but his hatred of Burr was deeper and more personal. “He is bankrupt beyond redemption,” he wrote. So he endorsed Jefferson. The battle went on for 36 ballots before Jefferson finally prevailed. The promise Hamilton extracted for his support was that Jefferson would preserve his financial system and maintain a strong navy.

The feud between Hamilton and Burr culminated in their infamous 1804 duel, which ended Hamilton’s life and Burr’s political career. New York’s two most powerful politicians thus disappeared from the national stage. And the election of Jefferson, with the help of Hamilton and New York, gave temporary ascendancy to his party’s vision of an agrarian America with a distrust of urban commercial centers.

But by then, New York’s imprint on the nation’s soul was already indelibly stamped. Hamilton had succeeded in binding the country together under one central economic and fiscal system. “Hamilton had promoted a forward-looking agenda of a modern nation-state with a market economy and an affirmative view of central government,” Chernow writes. “It was the northern economic system that embodied the mix of democracy and capitalism that was to constitute the essence of America in the long run.”

So let’s give credit where it’s due. Sure, the New England Puritans had a lot of influence on our nation’s soul, since we still go through occasional spasms of railing about sinners in the hands of an angry God and launching witch hunts. And the agrarian Arcadia envisioned by the Virginians remains part of the defining dream, both for rural populists and exurban refugees. I’m also partial, since I wrote a book about it, to the role played by the Main Street and Market Street shopkeepers of the aspiring middle class, such as Benjamin Franklin.

But even though New York City kept missing opportunities to play a starring role in the saga of our founding, and even though many Americans have sometimes viewed it as an urban polyglot slightly alien to our defining values, its attitudes turned out to be a dominant thread in the fabric of our nation. Look at what America became: a powerhouse of commerce and finance built by a diverse mix of striving urban cultures.

That required an atmosphere of tolerance so that different ethnic groups could coexist, and a set of marketplace mechanisms that would reward enterprise. Chernow’s rich story of Hamilton’s influence, like Shorto’s history of early Manhattan, helps us see how these attributes arose out of the pluralistic cauldron of Van der Donck’s village.

How We Got Shafted at the Revolution